This is a prequel/companion novel to The Puritan Princess , told in a first person narrative by Bridget Cromwell, the eldest daughter of Oliver Cromwell and wife of Henry Ireton (and, following Ireton’s death, of Charles Fleetwood). It’s told in the present tense, which I do find annoying – it makes me feel as if I’m back in the Infants, reading a Peter & Jane or Janet & John book – but it’s a fascinating story of weighty events combined with the domestic lives of the Cromwell women.
Civil War novels are generally about Cavaliers versus Roundheads, but this one focuses on the in-fighting between the Roundheads – Presbyterians versus Independents (which really ceased to be an issue in England, if not in Scotland and Northern Ireland, after the Restoration, but which was crucial in the late 1640s), the Putney Debates, and the role of the Levellers. However, there’s no mention of the Diggers, which is a shame. I find it interesting that the leader of the Diggers was from Wigan! I also find it interesting that here are pop groups named after the Diggers, the Levellers and the New Model Army, but that’s beside the point.
The book finishes, apart from a brief epilogue, in 1652, so we don’t get the famous “In the name of God, go” speech, but there are numerous references to the frustration of the press and the public with politicians on all sides. Some things don’t change very much over the years. It’s particularly interesting to see two very controversial subjects, the execution of Charles I and the atrocities committed by Cromwell’s troops in Ireland, led by Henry Ireton, from Bridget’s viewpoint.
Puritans don’t get a very good press in England. What do we know about Puritans? They banned Christmas (with specific reference to mince pies) and they stopped people from playing football on Sundays. Boo, hiss. They went round people’s houses looking for old men who wouldn’t say their prayers, and taking them by the left leg and throwing them down the stairs. There’s that brilliant episode of Blackadder in which Lord and Lady Whiteadder come to visit, and criticise absolutely everything that Edmund does.
Puritans who went to America, however, are seen in a rather romantic light. That’s actually quite odd, given the way they treated Quakers and Baptists, and the Salem Witch Trials; but it’s that idea of wanting to found a New World, a New Jerusalem. That in itself is problematic, given that Puritanism in in Dutch form was a major contributor towards apartheid, the idea of a chosen people who could help themselves to someone else’s land, but the romantic idea lingers. And, having just typed “A New Jerusalem”, I’m now going to be earwormed by Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” all day. I love the fact that she wrote that song as a hymn to New York. Much as I love Hubert Parry’s musical setting of “Jerusalem”, I take great exception to William Blake suggesting that a town/city with “dark satanic mills” is the antithesis of a New Jerusalem. Gah. Sorry, that’s totally beside the point, LOL.
I very much doubt that the Pilgrim Fathers ever so much as mentioned a New Jerusalem, a City on a Hill and all the rest of it, but we tend to think that they did. And there does seem to have been some sense amongst Puritans in England in the mid to late 1640s of a chance to build a new world – we had the Levellers and the Diggers, as already mentioned, and the Fifth Monarchists. The book very much presents Bridget as an idealist, someone who genuinely believed in the idea of a godly Commonwealth, and who was devastated when her father eventually accepted a role not that far removed from that of king.
The character does come across very well, but there are some frustrating anachronisms. “Liz” and “Olly” would not have been used as nicknames for Elizabeth and Oliver in the 17th century: “Bess” and “Noll” were the usual short forms of the names. And people would not have been talking about women’s rights. Even the title of the book’s odd, because Bridget doesn’t rebel. Her interpretation of events is put across well, though – although people might take exception to it. We see her justifying the execution of Charles I as supposedly being the only way to bring an end to the conflict (except that it didn’t). And, whilst being horrified by what happened in Ireland, saying that it was in line with what happened to besieged towns during the Thirty Years’ War – which is true enough, but may not go down very well with Irish readers.
For the Civil War from a female viewpoint, my number one recommendation is Pamela Belle’s Wintercombe, but that’s about a woman living in a country house in Somerset, whereas this one’s about a woman at the centre of the big events at the time, so they’re not really comparable. This one isn’t the best Civil War book I’ve ever come across, but it’s certainly well worth a read: the history’s accurate, and, in particular, it’s an interesting and unusual take on the period. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more books in this series.